Friday, December 10, 2010

The Dark Continent - Part II

  In high school they were always telling us to shoot for the stars.  That's what I was trying to do in this picture.  Actually I was aiming for the sun, which is a star so it still counts.  Don't ask why I am shirtless, I guess it was the hunter and gatherer in me finally coming out.   

   After the wedding we had an extra day in Hazyview before most of us headed to Cape Town.  With our last full day we decided to go exploring some natural wonders that had nothing to do with animals.  The first one we tried to see was a spot called God's Window.  This point was used in the movie "God's Must be Crazy" where the main character goes to throw the evil coke bottle off the "edge of the earth".  Because of the low clouds it indeed looked as such.  Unfortunately for us, the Window was steamed up and the fog that day did not permit us to see anything from what is supposed to be a beautiful view point atop a high altitude.  So we instead, decided to go to a place appropriately called Potholes:

This geological phenomenon was caused over thousands of years by whirling pools of water.  It reminded me of a mini Grand Canyon because of the colors and cliffs.  The smooth red and yellow rocks contrast nicely with the dark pools.  

Next, we went to a vantage point that was much clearer than God's window:

A spectacular view!  What you can barely see in this picture is how windy it was and how frozen all of us were.  It was supposed to be springtime, but that day felt a lot closer to winter.  

We proceeded to drive back to the hotel for a bri (BBQ in American), but unfortunately got caught in a hailstorm and had to keep ourselves occupied by telling stories and taking silly pictures:

If we're all staring at the camera then who is driving?  Good thing Cooper can multi-task.  We were forced to double back due to a traffic stoppage which made us 2 hours late for the BBQ.  This did not sit well with the newlywed bride as you might imagine.  We all felt bad for Andrew, but we did have as fun a time in the car as a group can have on a road trip.

The next day most of the group bid farewell to Kruger and all the magnificent animals + made our way back to Johannesburg airport to fly to Cape Town.

That ridiculous view is the city of Cape Town from afar.  You can barely make out the downtown area where the water meets land and directly behind it is Table Mountain which is pretty incredible in its own right, and is being considered for one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.  (Note: There are 28 finalists + I've only seen 6 of them.  I'm thinking my goal should be to see them all.  For more info or to vote visit  The mountain is often covered by rolling clouds that locals affectionately call a "Table cloth" for the appearance it gives.  If I lived in Cape Town I don't think I'd ever get tired of that view. 

The vantage point from the top of table mountain.  There is a way to hike to the top which is about 1,000 meters above sea level, but you can also take a tram which is what I did that day.  It's a bit hazy, but you can make out downtown Cape Town a little better in this picture.  If you look real hard, in the back left you might see a big white oval which is one of the main stadiums they built for the World Cup.

The foreboding view from the other side of the mountain.  

That peculiar looking creature in the picture is called a dassie.  They live atop the mountain + and look like a cross between a beaver and a small bear.  Here's a better picture:

I went in to get a close up and I don't think he was too excited about that. 

   While in Cape Town I was fortunate to stay with Mich and Andrew, the newlyweds, and a friend of Mich's named Menanto.  She was an amazing host + took off work one day to drive us around.  Behind Table mountain there is a peninsula that extends to a tip called Cape Point.  In case you were wondering, "Well that's great Alex, but what is the longitude and latitude of this Cape Point?".  Worry not, I have you covered:

So now that you have your bearings, you are probably trying to figure out how far that point is from the city you live in or New York in my case.  We aim to be a full-service blog so let me do that work for you...

Hopefully that clears everything up and there are no more questions.  

The view from atop Cape Point.  You can't see but someone had drawn a big heart in the sand on that beach.
The city is fantastic and I never tired of the breathtaking views.  

Despite being next to an urban metropolis you couldn't go too far in any direction without getting a reminder that you are still in Africa and in Africa wild animals run free:

Baboons in the street.  We had to stop for them + roll up our windows because apparently if they think you have food they are not above jumping into a car to get it.  The little ones look cute but they can get nasty!

On the drive back from Cape point one of my favorite animals since I was little, just hanging out on some rocks.  These penguins were sunning themselves and thought I was a weirdo for getting so close but I couldn't help myself.  

An expanded view.  There must have been 20 or so of them.

Of course, the other thing South Africa is known for besides the scenery and wild animals is Apartheid.  For my first 6 days, I barely noticed this country had gone through such an unseemly and relatively recent upheaval from those inglorious days.  My buddy John likened it to the decades in Germany following World War II where most people were confused and those who were previously in power just acted as if injustices had never happened.  I didn't sense a large feeling of resentment by the native african people there but I don't think I was there for long enough or in the right places (mostly touristy spots), for I'm sure it exists.  How can it not?  The only place they did discuss Apartheid openly was in my tour of Robben Island.  That is the famous island where they held many political and most dangerous criminals during Apartheid including Nelson Mandela for 23 years.  

This was his cell for most of those years.  During the tour you were given free time to wander into various cells and in many of them they had a few paragraphs written by the prisoners who inhabited them.  Very eye opening and powerful stuff.  

One of the coolest things about the tour is that after you get bused around the island, you are dropped off at the prison and handed off to a new guide that is a former prisoner.  At the end of our tour of the cells and facilities he took us to this public cell and we had a Q&A session with him.  He is an older gentleman now, but apparently was locked up for being an instigator and part of a bomb plot against Apartheid back in the day.  It was very interesting and educational.

As it turns out, Menanto, our host, is originally from the Kalahari desert.  When I heard that, all I could blurt out was, "Have you seen 'The Gods Must be Crazy'?".  If you haven't seen this movie, go rent it.  It was made in 1980 and is hands down the best movie I've ever had to watch in school.  It tells the story of what happens when an African tribe called the Bushmen has a simple coke bottle fall into their village (they've never seen glass before).  The Bushmen live in the Kalahari and Menanto, of course, knew that and about the movie.  Somehow she found a small Bushman reservation about 2 hours north of Cape Town so we set out to check it out for the first time for both of us.  

This was the charming (and warm) entrance.  The name of this small reservation and Guest house is !kwha ttu.  The ! is a click you make with your tongue and the top of your mouth.  They have various clicks in their language but more on that later. 

This is the cute bathroom sign they use for male vs. female.  

We took a game tour of their property conducted by a bushman.  After driving in a large metal cart pulled by a noisy tractor we got off in the middle of the bush.  

The first thing he taught us about was tracking.  That little box next to him has rocks that make different tracks of animals in the sand right in front.  We learned about tracking everything from springboks to porcupines and that even a springbok can make 3 different types tracks (standing, running and springing).  Now, if I ever crash on an island I won't be completely useless.   

Then vs now

Again the wind playing havoc with my hair.  In my right hand is an ostrich egg.  The bushmen used to use them to carry water in as they were large and durable.  

We came to a village where we sat and learned about the different instruments and utensils the bushmen created.  This woman spoke entirely in her native language and our guide translated which was an unexpected treat.   

To build a fire...he succeeded in the end despite the strong winds.  

Classroom time

I am concentrated and focused on the language lesson at the end of our tour.  Here he explained about 6 different clicks his native language uses from the ! to a click you would use to call a horse (using the side of your mouth).  It felt silly at first, but we got to practice each one.  All in all, the tour was a definite success and I recommend it to anyone staying in Cape Town for more than a few days + who want to do something off the beaten path.  

In addition to the above, there's a plethora of other attractions and excursions offered in South Africa including a multitude of exquisite vineyards, whale watching, serious safaris, etc.  I didn't have time to pack everything in, but I hope this gives a sense of how fabulous the people, beasts and natural beauty are.

  I don't have any more big trips planned till after the new year so I will take a little break from blogging to focus on work endeavors.  A sincere thanks to everyone who logs in to read my rants as I hope they are somewhat entertaining and that you learn at least one new fact each time.  Happy Holidays to all + best wishes for the New Year!!!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Dark Continent - Part I

For all the exploring I've done recently and in my lifetime, one continent I still had not set foot on was Africa.  I look at traveling the same way college courses are structured:

101 = Most travel within the US, Canada and some Caribbean.
201 = European travel, Australia (mostly English speaking or understanding, passport req'd and currency exchange.
301 = Much of Asia, parts of South America (not as much English, not as developed as US cities, shots req'd)
401 = Africa, Iraq, Antarctica (high risk and danger from nature, people or both).

While I felt going in that South Africa was my first foray into a 401 locale, in retrospect I'd put it solidly at 301 with a splash of 401.  The scenery was breathtaking, animals as you'd imagine them and the people were lovely, warm and a lot of fun.

As with Amalfi, the reason I went there in the first place was for the wedding of Andrew, the little brother of my best buddy, John.  I had become more friendly with Andrew since high school thanks to my job taking me to London every 3 months for 4 years.  On this occasion he was marrying a beautiful South African, Michelene.

That's Andrew and I posing like idiots on the edge of a gorge.  

The wedding was to take place in a town called Hazyview, about 4 hours northeast of Johannesburg. I think it's map time:

Hazyview is too small to be visible on most maps but it is slightly north of Nelspruit on this map and conveniently next to famous Kruger National Park.  While it was difficult to get to, esp for Americans, it was a fabulous place to get married because the guests had ample opportunities to go on "Game Drives" or vehicular excursions into Kruger.  I decided that my internal clock was so messed up from the ride down (it's about 15 hours) and the 4 hour subsequent car drive that a game drive at 530am the following morning made sense.  I had dinner, went to bed early, + woke up at 230am the next morning and could not get back to sleep because of my excitement.

Two other wedding guests were nuts enough to accompany me at that hour.  As it turns out they were Ransom (my high school) alumni so we all rose before sunrise and met our malcontented South African guide.  He knew his stuff, but seemed to have a chip on his shoulder for the 7 hours we were with him which made things more entertaining than usual.  

We learned that the goal of any game drive in Kruger or most other places in Africa is to see the Big Five.  

This beautiful pencil drawing hung in our hotel + I had trouble taking my eyes off of it.  It illustrates the Big 5, but in case you are tired, blind, grew up in an urban environment your whole life or some combo of these, they are elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard.  We were told the toughest of these to see is the leopard due to it's solitary nature and the fact that they are just as likely to be found in a tree as on the ground.  Lions were 2nd most difficult + our guide said that 4 out of 5 is considered a success for a game drive.  

While we were still getting the cobwebs out of our heads at 6am, luck intervened and we stumbled upon this:

This pride of lions woke us all up.  They were all just lazing around, a lion with his 4 lionesses (and potentially two lesbian lionesses in the foreground).  Everyone fantasizes about being reincarnated as a lion (or maybe that's just me) but viewing this scene made that sentiment even stronger.  Basically most prides function like this one with a single (or sometimes 2) lions taking care of multiple lionesses.  Furthermore, the lionesses do a lot of the dirty work with respect to finding and killing food so all the lion really has to do is stop other lions from infringing on his territory.  He might get involved in a kill if they go after something larger where his body weight is needed but otherwise he gets to relax and look stately.  Not a bad gig if you can get it + we were extremely fortunate to watch them for 20 minutes like this as these were the only lions we or anyone else in our group saw on the entire trip!

Lying not far from the pride was this guy:

He's not part of the Big 5 and you can't see them, but his friends were nearby.  That's a hyena + they were tracking a recent kill our lions had made.  Hyenas rarely kill food themselves, preferring to wait for another animal to make a kill and move in as a pack.  They are pretty formidable themselves and apparently have the strongest jaw of any animal in Kruger but are lazy and like to mooch off the kills of others.  There were only 3 in this case vs. the 5 lions so they were playing the waiting game here, but it's not unheard of hyenas to attack an equal numbered pride and take over a fresh kill the lions have just made.  

As we continued our driven safari we encountered a plethora of other fantastic creatures.  They say pictures speak louder than words (or wait that's actions), pictures are worth 1000 words so I wonder how many actions a picture is worth....anyway, less talk more pictures:

This Rhino got unusually close to our truck + was breathtaking to see such a powerful animal up close.  I had heard from the movie "The Gods must be Crazy" that rhinos like to stamp out fires when they see them but our driver, after laughing at me, would not confirm that.  

Probably my favorite animal by the end of the trip.  These pics along with the first one were a lot of fun and at times, nerve wracking to get.  Elephants look thoughtful to me in the same way horses do and they move in such a majestic manner.  

One of my worse pictures, but that's a buffalo back there.  
Good thing this zebra wasn't as invisible as he thought he was or we'd have hit him.  


This ridiculous scene happened the morning of the wedding when I drove in with the groom and his dad.  We stopped to watch the hippos (they look like rocks on the left) and a bull elephant came out of the forest to grab a drink and roll around in the mud.  The hippos grunted and were not impressed. 

This lioness was alone and looked pretty disoriented that she almost ran into our truck.  She was pretty beaten up so hopefully she found her pride and got some rest.  

Sleeping bats and a monkey tree.  

Last but certainly not least, we found the elusive leopard.  

This one had just made a kill on the ground and climbed into the tree for a nap.  I will never look at all the leopard items (and I have lots...don't ask) in my apartment the same again.  Beautiful but scary animal.  

One of the cooler sightings of the entire time happened on a night game drive where we were fortunate to stumble upon 3 hyenas eating a freshly killed impala.  As stated above, hyenas rarely kill for themselves so we took flashlights to the surrounding area and miraculously found another leopard who was not at all happy that someone else was eating his dinner.  He walked around the perimeter for a while but there was nothing he could do, but wait for them to leave.  

At many points during the drive it felt like we were watching an episode of national geographic except it was live and therefore better than HD...The scenes were spectacular and worth the trouble of getting down there.  Oh and by the way, a wedding did take place and it was a good one:

Men acting silly

Women acting mature and looking beautiful.

The groom and bride looking happy and relieved.  

Who doesn't like bubbles.

Thus concludes part I of my South Africa trip.  As extraordinary as part I was, Part II might be even better so stay tuned for the final act.